Brazil builds world's second largest astronomy camera
April 08, 2015
By Elton Alisson
Agência FAPESP – In the next few months, the Javalambre Astrophysical Observatory in the region of Aragón, Spain, will begin a multiyear survey of the universe observable from the northern hemisphere to produce a three-dimensional map showing hundreds of millions of galaxies and corresponding to about one-fifth of the entire sky.
The survey will use two wide-field telescopes, one with a mirror 80 cm in diameter and an 85-megapixel camera and the main telescope with a 2.5-m mirror and a 1.2-gigapixel camera capable of producing images in 59 colors of every star, galaxy, quasar and supernova, as well as other objects in the observable solar system.
JPCam, the 1.2-gigapixel optical camera, will be the world’s second largest camera used in astronomy. The largest is a 1.4 gigapixel camera at the University of Hawaii as part of its Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS). A 3.2-gigapixel camera, now being built for use with the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) in Chile, is scheduled to go live in 2022.
Both JPCam and the 85-megapixel camera are being constructed with the participation of Brazilian researchers, within the framework of the Thematic Project “The 3D universe: astrophysics with large galaxy surveys,” supported by FAPESP.
“JPCam will produce 59-color images of almost every pixel of the observed sky, which is absolutely new,” said Laerte Sodré Junior, a professor at the University of São Paulo’s Institute of Astronomy, Geophysics & Atmospheric Sciences (IAG-USP) and the Thematic Project’s principal investigator.
“There are astronomy instruments that do this, but in a tiny region of the sky and not with the number of image filters JPCam will have. This will open up a new window in astronomy,” Sodré told Agência FAPESP.
The Brazilian researchers are responsible for the mechanical components of the camera, including a device to control light intake and the 14-detector image filtering trays. The instrument’s optical subsystem will be fabricated by a UK company engaged by the astronomy collaboration, a consortium of Brazilian and Spanish universities and research institutions.
Brazil’s participation in the project is funded by FAPESP and other Brazilian research funding agencies. “The Spanish government is funding construction of the observatory and telescopes. Brazil is responsible for construction of the cameras,” Sodré said.
JPCam is only one of the instruments under development by Brazilian researchers for use in large-scale astronomical observation projects that will be placed into service in the coming years.
Another group of researchers affiliated with IAG-USP, in collaboration with the National Space Research Institute (INPE), the National Observatory (ON) and the National Astrophysics Laboratory (LNA), are also developing an 85-megapixel camera that will be attached to a new 87-cm telescope now being installed at the Cerro Tololo International Observatory in Chile with FAPESP’s support.
The Cerro Tololo telescope will be used in a three- to four-year survey of the observable universe in the southern hemisphere, complementing the observations made by the Javalambre Astrophysical Observatory’s smaller telescope.
This will be equivalent to another one-seventh of the entire sky, covering the visible region of the electromagnetic spectrum, say researchers in the field. “The Cerro Tololo International Observatory’s telescope should start producing data as early as August,” Sodré said. “This survey will result in discoveries of the greatest importance to astronomy.”
Sodré took part in the “Workshop on Advanced Instrumentation for Astronomy” held by FAPESP in partnership with the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) on March 16 in FAPESP’s auditorium.
One of the workshop’s goals was to explore opportunities for collaboration between Brazilian and Dutch scientists and engineers related to the development of advanced scientific instrumentation for astronomy, as a contribution to the research programs funded by the two agencies in the field.
According to Sodré, the first scientific instruments for astronomy projects developed in Brazil were for the telescopes of the Pico dos Dias Observatory in Minas Gerais, which was unveiled in 1980 and is operated and maintained by the LNA.
At that time, most instruments were developed by universities or research institutions, and there was no cooperation with industry, explained João Steiner, a professor at IAG-USP.
“In those days, the possibility didn’t exist. Each university and research institution had its own mechanical and electronics workshops and its own engineers. They developed everything in house. Service agreements and cooperation with outside firms only began in the mid-1980s,” Steiner said.
According to the researchers, a new age in the development of scientific instrumentation for astronomy projects began in the first decade of the current millennium with the Gemini Observatory, which went live in 2004 with twin telescopes, one in the Chilean Andes and the other in Hawaii, and the Southern Observatory for Astrophysical Research (SOAR), which was put into operation in the Andes in 2005.
Brazil has a 6.5% share in observations recorded by Gemini, whose telescopes are equipped with mirrors 8.1 m in diameter, and a 30% share in SOAR, which has a 4.2-m mirror. The participation of Brazilian researchers in both observatories is supported by FAPESP and other Brazilian research funding agencies.
“Despite the scientific success of Brazil’s 6.5% share in observations and 12% share in publication of articles resulting from research done at the observatory in 2014, we weren’t very successful in our strategies to develop scientific instrumentation for Gemini. Nevertheless, we learned several lessons about how not to do certain things,” Steiner said. “In the case of SOAR, we found that partnering with industry to develop scientific instruments is the best way.”
The Brazilian researchers collaborated on the construction of three optical spectrographs for the SOAR telescope.
The first, a high-resolution spectrograph equipped with an integral field unit, was developed as part of the project “Construction of two optical spectrographs for the SOAR telescope.”
The second is the Brazilian Tunable Filter Imager (BTFI), developed under the aegis of the project “The Brazilian tunable filter imager for SOAR: phase 1.” The third is STELES, Brazil’s first high-resolution spectrograph, developed as part of the project “STELES: a high resolution spectrograph for SOAR” (read more at http://agencia.fapesp.br/19924).
“We’ve developed many fiber-optic spectrographs, which have enabled us to acquire experience in Brazil with the construction of scientific instruments that use this material,” Sodré said. “This has also equipped us to participate in international projects of a far larger scale than we were used to.”
One of these large-scale projects is the development of the fiber-optic subsystem for a new spectrograph for Japan’s Subaru telescope, which has an 8.2-m mirror and is located on the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii.
Between 2019 and 2023, the Japanese telescope will map the galaxies with the aim of understanding the nature of dark matter, which is responsible for the accelerating expansion of the universe, and of extending scientists’ knowledge of how the first star clusters were formed.
In addition to this project, researchers at Brazilian universities and research institutions have participated in the development of scientific instrumentation for a radio telescope that is to be part of the Long Latin American Millimeter Array (LLAMA) in Argentina, which is scheduled to start operating in 2021 (read more at http://agencia.fapesp.br/19573).
Other astronomy projects in which Brazil is participating include the Cherenkov Telescope Array (CTA), which will be the world’s largest observatory dedicated to the study of celestial bodies that emit gamma rays and is to be built by 2020 in both the southern and northern hemispheres, and the Giant Magellan Telescope (GMT) in Chile. Construction of the GMT, which will be one of the largest telescopes on earth, begins this year. The telescope is scheduled to see first light in 2021 (read more about the CTA at http://agencia.fapesp.br/16755).
FAPESP will invest US$40 million in the project, or the equivalent of approximately 4% of its estimated total cost, thus guaranteeing that 4% of the GMT’s operating time will be available for researchers from São Paulo as well as securing a seat on the consortium’s board (read more at http://agencia.fapesp.br/19572).
“Brazilian industry will have an opportunity to participate in fabrication of the telescope dome, a structure that will comprise 4,000 metric tons of steel,” Steiner said.
“Also, we’ve assumed responsibility for developing some scientific instruments that involve technologies highly typical of the aerospace industry.”
According to Steiner, development of scientific instrumentation for the GMT by Brazilian researchers has been a requirement since the start of negotiations regarding Brazil’s participation in the project.
“It isn’t enough to use the telescopes and scientific instruments developed in other countries,” he said. “We need to learn to make these instruments and continually acquire more experience in developing technology relating to astronomy but also applicable in other fields.”
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